In 2003 the Council of the Frick Collection published an extended lecture by Charles Hope entitled “Giorgione or Titian? History of a Controversy.” * Hope’s essay was the inaugural lecture in a projected series of annual talks to be given by eminent art historians. At the time Charles Hope was director of the Warburg Institute in London, and one of the world’s leading Titian scholars.
The lecture was published in pamphlet form with many illustrations and I believe it is still available in the Museum’s bookshop. It should be required reading for any student of Giorgione or Titian.
|Titian: Man with a Red Cap|
Frick museum, NY
Hope used the Frick’s own “Portrait of a Man with a Red Cap” as the starting point for a critique of practically all previous Giorgione scholarship and connoisseurship. He concentrated mainly on the history of Giorgione attributions and argued that the great majority involve pure guesswork. He believed that only a handful of paintings, including the Tempest, the Three Philosophers, and the Laura, could definitely be attributed to Giorgione.
After a very thorough review of the attribution controversies, he concluded,
we are faced here with a failure of connoisseurship, which, after more than a century of effort, has not produced a solution that commands general assent, or indeed makes visual sense. All that we can say with complete certainty is that the overwhelming majority of the proposals that have been advanced must be wrong, because at most only one can be correct. (37)
How could so many distinguished scholars and critics have been wrong or have based their conclusions on such flimsy evidence? Here is Hope’s answer.
In one important respect the problem of Giorgione is paradigmatic of much modern discussion of Renaissance art. It is normally supposed, even if tacitly, that the history of art is a cumulative process, with each generation of scholars adding a little more knowledge to what had previously been discovered. Yet with Giorgione it is clear that nothing of this kind happened. Far from supposing themselves ignorant, scholars have always believed that they know a great deal about him and his Venetian contemporaries. Over the past couple of centuries some of the certainties inherited from earlier generations have had to be discarded, but there has been an almost universal reluctance to examine in a consistent way the basis on which our understanding of this artist and his circle was established. To do so would be to question the competence of most of those who have written on the subject, and this is something that no one, it seems, wants to do. As a result, the views of nineteenth century critics such as Crowe and Cavalcaselle, which were often based on the flimsiest evidence, have colored everything that has been written subsequently and the longer those views have gone unchallenged the greater the authority that they have acquired. (38)
Despite their well-known political inclinations, it would appear that most scholars are inherently conservative, especially when it comes to their own fields. They often will give lip service to “thinking outside the box,” but their devotion to traditional academic orthodoxies is pervasive. In my own experience I have found art history to be a very insular world.
I had never even heard of Giorgione at the time of the Hope lecture. It was two years later that by chance I noticed a black and white reproduction of the Tempest while preparing for a trip to Venice. I remember wondering why the nursing woman was nude, and also whether the couple had left the city in the background or were on their way to the city. An intuition led me to see the painting as a version of the Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt.
After almost 35 years as a financial advisor, I was getting close to retirement and the painting fascinated me. Many years before, I had received my PhD in History, and had taught European history for seven years at a local Connecticut college. I dusted off the old academic shelves and began to do some research on Giorgione and the Tempest. Fortunately, the Accademia in Venice and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna had just sponsored a ground breaking Giorgione exhibition, and produced a magnificent catalog.
One of the first things I discovered was that not only did scholars fail to agree about Giorgione attributions, but also they could not agree on the subject matter of most of his paintings. It was just as Hope had claimed in his lecture. Each interpretation had been challenged by subsequent interpretations. The field was open to new interpretations that would not need to be based on the erroneous guesses of the past but on a fresh look at the paintings through eyes that had not been trained in the prevailing orthodoxy.
Since my interpretation of the Tempest as the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” I have been able to also identify the subjects of a number of other mysterious Renaissance paintings. These include Giorgione’s so-called “Three Ages of Man” (Pitti Palace) as “The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man”; Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” (Borghese Gallery) as “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen”; and Titian’s “Pastoral Concert” as his “Homage to the Recently Deceased Giorgione.” These papers can be found on my website.
Coincidentally, in 2005 I discovered that I had glaucoma. The young surgeon who examined me said that without surgery to relieve the pressure, I would be blind in three years. Fortunately, he is a genius and the surgery was successful. My vision is not the best but I can still see.
I put this post up today because it is the fifth anniversary of Giorgione et al…. I started the blog five years ago at the urging of Hasan Niyazi, the creator of the popular art history blog, Three Pipe Problem. Unfortunately, Hasan passed away last October but I will never forget our friendship and the debt I owe to him for guiding me through the intricacies of the blogosphere. Hasan’s site is currently down but there is hope that his friends will revive it. In the weeks to come I will reproduce some articles of mine that appeared on Three Pipe Problem over the past four years. ###
*Charles Hope: Giorgione or Titian? History of a Controversy, The council of the Frick Collection Lecture Series, NY, 2003.